One thing our Better or Worse feature has failed to account for in previous years is the coaching staff. However, watching the Eagles in 2016, one thing was apparent, and that was this team isn't going to get significantly better unless the coaching does, too. There have simply been too many ups and downs on the sideline to ignore it any longer.
Doug Pederson returns as head coach, with almost his entire staff intact – namely Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator. Only the wide receivers room underwent major renovations, with Mike Groh taking over for Greg Lewis. So the question is: can Pederson learn from the mistakes of his first season in charge, and continue to grow with this team, or will he be a detriment to the Eagles' growth and drag the franchise down with him?
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The Eagles didn't just get a sorely needed influx of talent at wide receiver. The move from Greg Lewis to Mike Groh is undeniably an upgrade, even just based on a comparison of their experience.
Groh has been coaching since 2000 after a brief NFL career. He became a wide receivers coach at Alabama in 2011, then for the Bears in 2013. He's coach a trio of 1,000-yard receivers at the pro level in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery with the Bears and Kenny Britt with the Los Angeles Rams last season.
Lewis actually had a lengthy NFL career as a wideout, and coached receivers for three years at the college level. The Eagles were only his second pro stop, though, and first as receivers coach – and the result was poor. Some of that is on the talent, but when you hear Nelson Agholor saying it's Groh who taught him something as fundamental as the proper stance to explode off the line of scrimmage, the differences are quite clear.
The Eagles needed better receivers, but they needed a better teacher, too. There's no question they have both now.
Doug Pederson has two jobs in 2017, and they're tied so closely together, it's really one job – 1. Carson Wentz must grow as a quarterback, and 2. make the Eagles a better team in the process. Pederson shouldn't go into this season on the hot seat by any means, but if Wentz and the Eagles take a step back, that certainly might be grounds for firing come January.
There's no simple benchmark for Pederson in this department. It doesn't mean Wentz has to be in the Pro Bowl, or the Eagles absolutely have to make the playoffs. Although, we probably should see Pro Bowl potential in Wentz, and an Eagles squad that at least competes for a playoff bid. This season is all about progress, and if that progress is not made, Pederson will have to answer for it.
After 16 seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, we more or less know who Schwartz is. He's going to rush four out of his wide-nine front, then pray that it's enough pressure and his unit is good enough on the back end to force stops. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.
The problem for the Eagles last season was consistency, which seemed largely to be a reflection of the talent. The pass rush was strong, but quarterbacks who got rid of the ball quickly were able to pick on a bad group of cornerbacks. Schwartz tried blitzing and mixing up his coverages more, but the final product was a slightly-above-average defense. Given what Schwartz had to work with, this outcome should actually create optimism about what he can do with a few new pieces in 2017.
Honestly, the best thing Chip Kelly ever did for the Eagles was to hire this man. Fipp goes into his fifth season coaching special teams, which have been outstanding every year of his tenure. Any thought there might be a drop-off after Kelly left was put to rest. Whatever Fipp is doing, it works just as well under Pederson.
The rest of the assistants remain the same as well, but there are some particularly noteworthy names here. Jeff Stoutland did a remarkable job patching the offensive line together in 2016, considering all the injuries and absences up front. Duce Staley (running backs) and Cory Undlin (defensive backs) are two more Kelly holdovers with glowing reputations. And John DeFilippo's role in getting Carson Wentz ready to play last year should not go overlooked. Pederson's staff is top notch.
Pederson did some things well in his first year on the job, and he did some things poorly. That's sort of to be expected for a first-time head coach, especially one as green as he was. But the things Pederson did poorly, he tended to do very poorly – terribly, in fact. Coaching cost the Eagles games in 2016.
Pederson showed a real blind spot in Week 6 at Washington, the first week of Lane Johnson's 10-game suspension. With a fifth-round rookie seeing his first NFL action at right tackle against Ryan Kerrigan, Pederson had Wentz drop back to pass early and often, to predictably disastrous results. Two weeks later in Dallas, Pederson called for a punt rather than attempt a 53-yard field that could seal the game, even though Caleb Sturgis nailed a 55-yard field goal earlier.
It was "little" things, too. Pederson had Wentz dropping back 40 times per game, which would be a lot for a seasoned vet, let alone a rookie. Pederson was aggressive on fourth downs, but not always when the situation called for it, and sometimes when it didn't. And who could ever forget the time he threw a challenge flag on a play where winning would result in a net gain of about two yards?
Now, it's easy to chalk this all up to being new to the job, and it's perfectly reasonable to suspect some improvement. Then again, that's not exactly guaranteed. We watched Chip Kelly do the exact same things over and over for three years, and make no changes even as his teams regressed. We watched Andy Reid do a lot of the same things for 14 years, and Pederson is a Reid disciple.
We also tend to evaluate coaches in a bubble, too. The reality is they all do strange things from time to time. Maybe the only difference between Pederson in 2016 and some other NFL coaches is the Eagles didn't have the talent to overcome the occasional questionable coaching decision. Unfortunately, that was the difference last season between the 7-9 record the Eagles had, the 9-7 record they possibly could have – and why some people still have their doubts about the guy in charge.
BETTER OR WORSE?
With more or less the same staff in place, whether the Eagles coaches are better or worse is largely dependent upon Pederson's trajectory. He should get better in Year 2 on the job, even if there aren't any guarantees. The upgrade at wide receivers coach is no small thing, either. No one knows whether Pederson is the right man to lead this franchise for the long haul, but it's reasonable to assume he'll at least make some moderate gains. Better